Searching for emotion: A top-down set governs attentional orienting to facial expressions
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Research indicates that humans orient attention toward facial expressions of emotion. Orienting to facial expressions has typically been conceptualised as due to bottom-up attentional capture. However, this overlooks the contributions of top-down attention and selection history. In the present study, across four experiments, these three attentional processes were differentiated using a variation of the dot-probe task, in which participants were cued to attend to a happy or angry face on each trial. Results show that attention toward facial expressions was not exclusively driven by bottom-up attentional capture; instead, participants could shift their attention toward both happy and angry faces in a top-down manner. This effect was not found when the faces were inverted, indicating that top-down attention relies on holistic processing of the face. In addition, no evidence of selection history was found (i.e., no improvement on repeated trials or blocks of trials in which the task was to orient to the same expression). Altogether, these results suggest that humans can use top-down attentional control to rapidly orient attention to emotional faces.
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